A Cinematic Tour of the Problem of Free Will



Man is...nothing else but the sum of his actions, nothing else but what his life is.

- Jean-Paul Sartre


Descartes once quipped that there is nothing so unbelievable that it has not been said by some philosopher.

Determinism would appear to ordinary folk to be just such an idea - at least, insofar as it conflicts with free will. Most people assume themselves to make free choices in their daily life - to be told otherwise would appear to them pretty ridiculous. 

Yet, even though we assume or "know" we're free, the philosophical problem of freedom has troubled mankind for millennia. Are we fated, or free? Or both?

Fear not, armchair philosophers - to start exploring this philosophical problem, we don't have to venture much further than Netflix.

There is an extensive list of films online that deal with the problem of free will, such as Gattaca, A Clockwork Orange, etc. However, for the sake of brevity, we'll constrain our tour to just a few films.

First, a conversation from the the 2001 cult thriller-horror-sci-fi Donnie Darko, in which the troubled young protagonist questions his teacher, Monnitoff:

Donnie Darko gets all
moody and existential
Donnie:  If God controls time, then all time is pre-decided.
Monnitoff:  I’m not following you.
Donnie:  Every living thing follows along a set path. And if you could see your path or channel, then you could see into the future, right? Like… that’s a form of time travel.
Monnitoff:  Well, you’re contradicting yourself Donnie. If we were able to see out destines manifest themselves visually, then we would be given a choice to betray our chosen destinies.

This conversation illustrates the problem of free will through the traditional theistic conception of the world (we'll call this problem "problem A"). If God is eternal, and knows everything that you're going to do in advance of your doing it, doesn't that mean that you're not free to do it? That you have to do it because God already knows you will?

In addressing problem A in the fourth century, Augustine of Hippo essentially answered yes - a view that marginalized free will, and found its fulfillment in the notorious Calvinist doctrine of predestination centuries later. However, many theologians, including Thomas Aquinas, have since fought to reconcile free will and an all-knowing God. (We'll come back to that).

With the advent of Newtonian physics, the problem of free will was compounded, whether or not God is in the picture at all (we'll call this problem "problem B"). The world as we know it operates according to fundamental physical laws of motion, mechanics, and chemistry. We, too, are part of the physical, chemical universe. So if a "choice" is just brain activity, and the brain is just physical, and the physical world is determined by laws - isn't a choice determined, and not free? Aren't we all just as locked into our choices as Newton's apple is locked into falling?

Both problems A and B are summarized in a wonderful scene from Richard Linklater's animated head-trip Waking Life:


If our actions are just one more link in a causal chain of motion and chemistry, there doesn't appear to be much room for free choice. Or, as stated in The Curious Case of Benjamin Button: "Sometimes we're on a collision course, and we just don't know it. Whether it's by accident or by design, there's not a thing we can do about it."


This scene dramatizes the idea that everything, including our choices, are locked into an unfolding, predetermined chain of events. If this is the case - that we're all just on our own collision course set up by initial conditions of the big bang - there are huge implications for personal responsibility.

For example, if problem B means that everything I do is determined entirely by my biology and chemistry, how can I be held responsible for lying, stealing, or hurting others? How can we say a heinous mass murderer like Hitler is guilty of anything if he didn't "choose" anything at all?

This idea is explored, in part, by the film Minority Report, a story about "pre-crime." In the film, oracles called "pre-cogs" are able to see whatever crime a person is on a "collision course" to commit.

(Jump to 2:05 - 3:05)


In the world of Minority Report, people are, like Oedipus Rex, cemented into their criminal fate - yet, the pre-crime fighters intervene and lock them up anyway. Although there is an apparent lack of free will, society still has to function by punishing criminals.

This sci-fi scenario mirrors the ethics of atheist Sam Harris. Harris has posited that the notion of free will has been "torpedoed" by modern science and physics; that our neurons make our decisions for us before we're even conscious of making a choice at all; that choice is, at root, an illusion. Still, he argues that we "don't need" free will to have a conception of moral truths.  We should still lock up those who do evil, Harris argues - even though they are not the source of their own choices.

Of course, most people can't and won't take such a stance of predestination and hard determinism - either from the theism of John Calvin, or the atheism of Sam Harris. It seems that we all, to some degree, are free; even when we're sitting and talking with other people about how free will is an illusion, we behave like we're quite certain that free will is real.

But how can it be real, given what we've learned from these films?

First, there have been good (but insufficient) attempts at solving problem B (the Newtonian problem). Some have argued that quantum physics ends the free will debate by introducing the idea of "the wild card" with the uncertainty principle. But, as noted in Waking Life, quantum physics seems to be insufficient, and compounds the problem even further by introducing randomness into our choices. Sure, quantum physics puts determinism into question - but not exactly in a way that respects free choice.

Santa Claus
...er, I mean, Daniel Dennett
Others, most notably philosopher Daniel Dennett, are "compatabilists" who believe we can solve problem B by recognizing that we are both determined and free. Dennett argues that we are "choice machines" that have evolved to "pull our own strings." In other words, we choose between a set of hard-wired options in a world that is determined, but "not fatalistic." But this solution seems to just stretch or dissolve the definitions of "free will" and "determinism" until they don't mean what we normally understand them to mean.

Perhaps the best solution to problem B comes from the Judeo-Christian world view. For Christians, human beings are not locked into a Newtonian or quantum universe - we are not locked into the universe at all. Whatever the universe is and does, we transcend it. We are both material and immaterial creatures, both body and soul - and though we have bodily extension, and are undoubtedly physical beings, our immaterial "form," our "soul," the part of us that chooses, is supernatural - it isn't bound by a chain of causality. The "wild card" in a physical universe is not randomness, but soul.

Yet, for the theist, problem A - the problem of free will with regard to God's "fore-knowledge" - remains. How is this problem solved?

Augustine did have a strict view of God's grace that seemed to box out free will. However, other early Christian thinkers, knowing how essential free will is to the Christian worldview, dove deeper into the riddle.

Thomas Aquinas
To settle problem A, Thomas Aquinas wrote that "there is no distinction between what flows from free will, and what is of predestination," and that the free will is "moved by God." But how can this be? If our will is moved by God, doesn't it cease to be our will?

No. As one blogger puts it: "secondary causes [human free will] act concomitantly with the first cause [God's will]." Or, as stated in one reader's guide to the Catechism: "there is a kind of interplay, or synergy, between human freedom and divine grace."

Regarding God's "fore-knowledge," Peter Kreeft notes that God is not "pre or post anything." He doesn't "foresee" our actions - rather, he is "present to everything." Thus, by remembering that God is outside of time, his knowledge ceases to conflict with our free choice - the two are in interplay in the present moment.

In the end, problem A and problem B are entirely different - because, in the former, we are dealing with two wills in cooperation; in the latter, we are dealing with a large physical gear in direct conflict with free choice.

For a world that is increasingly convinced that there is no God and no soul, that relies instead on the findings of science to reveal all of reality, Daniel Dennett may have provided us with the best answer to problem A that we have.

The question is: is it good enough? Can we really say with confidence that we're free, accountable agents?

12 comments:

  1. First, it is obvious that we our will is not totally free. I cannot will myself to become an elephant. So, from the very start, will is constrained by nature. From there, it is further limited by the our creaturely tendency toward sin. Saint Paul was pretty emphatic that, without the grace of God, we are "dead in our transgressions" (Ephesians 2:5).

    Furthermore, Scripture relates: "Jesus answered them, 'Truly, truly, I say to you, everyone who commits sin is a slave to sin' (John 8:34). Again, Saint Paul used similar language: "Do you not know that if you present yourselves to anyone as obedient slaves, you are slaves of the one whom you obey, either of sin, which leads to death, or of obedience, which leads to righteousness" (Romans 6:16).

    Common sense makes clear that humans have limited will in terms of earthly matters: we cannot will ourselves to Mars, but we can will ourselves to eat an apple instead of an orange. As far as matters of salvation, however: "With man this is impossible, but with God all things are possible" (Matthew 19:26).

    When struggling with questions like these, we must look first and foremost to Scripture, which is God-breathed. You quoted everyone from Donnie Darko to Peter Kreeft to Jean-Paul Sartre in this post, but not once did you reference Holy Writ, the very foundation of our knowledge of such mysteries.

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  2. @Philip Jude

    Thanks for your comments! If you're interested I have some responses:

    "we cannot will ourselves to Mars, but we can will ourselves to eat an apple instead of an orange."

    Agreed - and I don't think the former is in question for most discussions of free will; however, it is a valid point and helpful qualification to note that will is not absolute. You're right - I can't will myself to be an elephant (I tried many a days to as a child to move things by "the force" - believe you me, it's not possible). So in that sense, we are not absolutely free.

    But the free choice between two natural things (say, your example of an apple and orange) common sense tell us is an absolute choice - yet, many materialists say is not free at all. This is the root of the problem of free will - choosing one thing rather than another, or not choosing rather than choosing.

    "When struggling with questions like these, we must look first and foremost to Scripture, which is God-breathed."

    This is fine if you're conversing with another Christian. How do you convince somebody of something who refuses to concede that the Bible is divinely inspired?

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  3. "Belief cannot argue with unbelief, it can only preach to it." --Karl Barth

    If we believe Scripture is the word of God, we must return to it for our first principles. I used to think as you do. Now, not so much.

    Nonbelievers measure all things by "reason" (so-called), which they view as the truest means of accessing and understanding reality.

    As Christians, we know the truest means of accessing and understanding reality is faith in general and Scripture in particular (Scripture as read by the Church). Let us not be dishonest, but openly avail ourselves to the life changing power of the Good Book.

    This is not to say that reason is worthless, just that there is nothing objectively reasonable about reason unless it is rooted in the Logos, the Absolute Reason.

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  4. @Philip Jude

    Our will is indeed free. You can very easily will yourself to become an elephant; the fact that you do not actually become an elephant is not a restriction of your will but rather a limitation of the influence on your will outside of your mind. This is a limitation not on the freedom of your will, but rather on it's power; God can will things into being because he has the power to do so. We cannot, not because we lack the freedom to will it, but because we lack the power.

    The will is a faculty of the mind, and is not limited by its external influence. If we were to measure our free will by what our wills have power to "do", then a person who is paralyzed has barely any free will at all compared to an able bodied person; according to your definition, they not only lack the "free will" to will themselves to go to Mars, but they lack even the "free will" to will themselves to stand up or wiggle their pinky toe. That a person can no longer have a free will because they have a spinal injury, however, is absurd. The power demonstrated as a result of our will has nothing to do with the freedom of our will itself.

    "Belief cannot argue with unbelief, it can only preach to it." --Karl Barth

    In order to preach effectively, you must be willing to become all things to all people. You must be able to engage the pagan on their own ground, communicate the truth of the faith in a way that a nonbeliever can begin to understand. If you believe your faith to be true, then it follows that it can be explained reasonably and argued reasonably. Apologetics is not superior to evangelization, but it is an important part of it, as it edifies the believer and affirms the universal truth.

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  5. @Peter Liao

    Peter - thanks for you clarification on freedom. You make a great point about the will being constrained by a lack of power.

    Regarding the Barth quote Phillip provided, I couldn't have said it better myself. From what I understand, Barth is brilliant - but I respectfully disagree with his sentiment.

    We're not really formal evangelists or even apologists here at By Way of Beauty - but the great thing about doing these write-ups is being able to draw non-religious or even anti-religious people into our world and our culture. (This post, which argues that the Judeo-Christian world view has the most sensible solution to the problem of free will, got 20 up votes in the atheism section of reddit).

    We put a high premium on art and philosophy for two reasons. First, as Walker Percy noted, spiritual language has become worn, devalued, and even defunct in the God-weary West. If you don't believe that the younger generations are largely overstuffed, cynical, and bored with God-talk, you're not paying attention, or not living out in the world. Repeating the good news louder and more often is just white noise when there's no bad news and all news is equal news.

    Second, we think that faith depends on reason and creativity, just as much as reason and creativity are informed and strengthened by faith. They contain each other, fulfill each other. JPII wrote that faith and reason, rather than an either/or, are like two wings of a bird on which the human person rises to contemplate truth.

    We tend to agree.

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  6. Peter,

    Will and power cannot properly be separated.

    Consider the lament of Saint Paul:

    "For we know that the law is spiritual, but I am of the flesh, sold under sin. For I do not understand my own actions. For I do not do what I want, but I do the very thing I hate. Now if I do what I do not want, I agree with the law, that it is good. So now it is no longer I who do it, but sin that dwells within me. For I know that nothing good dwells in me, that is, in my flesh. For I have the desire to do what is right, but not the ability to carry it out. For I do not do the good I want, but the evil I do not want is what I keep on doing. Now if I do what I do not want, it is no longer I who do it, but sin that dwells within me" (Romans 7:15-20).

    Though he desires to do good, he in fact does evil. That is because his will, his volition, is disordered, corrupted, and under the sway of sin. He has an impotent desire to act righteously, but his will is committed to wicked behavior. As one does, so one wills; as one wills, so one does.

    Your paralytic only proves my point: Our will is limited not simply by spiritual weakness but by physical weakness, too. This is why the Council of Orange proclaimed: “If anyone denies that it is the whole man, that is, both body and soul, that was “changed for the worse” through the offense of Adam’s sin, but believes that the freedom of the soul remains unimpaired and that only the body is subject to corruption, he is deceived by the error of Pelagius” (Canon I).

    This is why, as Luther and Calvin so brilliantly clarified, "free will" is properly an attribute of God alone. At best, we will experience some semblance of true freedom in our glorified bodies, but only because they are thoroughly irradiated with the grace of God. And even then, our nature as creatures will inhibit our ability to freely manifest our wills.

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  7. @Philip Jude

    Phillip -

    Because he's much smarter than I am and I'm no theologian, I recommend reading Thomas Aquinas' treatise on Free Will in the Summa Theologica (which is also bound up with his writing on the "sensitive appetite"). In fact, this exact quote from Paul is used as "Objection 1" to the argument that man is free. Aquinas responds: "Man has free-will: otherwise counsels, exhortations, commands, prohibitions, rewards, and punishments would be in vain...forasmuch as man is rational is it necessary that man have a free-will...the sensitive appetite, though it obeys the reason, yet in a given case can resist by desiring what the reason forbids. This is therefore the good which man does not when he wishes."

    You can find the full text on free will here: http://www.newadvent.org/summa/1083.htm

    And the text on the sensitive appetite here:
    http://www.newadvent.org/summa/1081.htm

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  8. God already willed our will? already chooses our choice?
    or genes already willed our will? destined our destinies?

    could that it be slavery?

    the real quest could be the truth of freedom..
    ok we pull our own string/s but is that the will of God? could it be amazingly wonderfully beautiful..

    there must be beauty in will.../? ;))

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  9. In regards to foreknowledge and free will, the IEP has an article on this in terms of a modal fallacy-- that knowing of something does not force it to happen, or necessitate it [1]. I believe Leibniz covers this in his theodicy, as well.

    I think appealing to the fact that it is logically fallacious to change the mode based on foreknowledge is sufficient to dispel fatalism.

    In regards to the mechanical view, you've covered my thoughts-- it presupposes materialism of the mind, of which I am not convinced.

    1. http://www.iep.utm.edu/foreknow/#SH6b

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  10. @jongnono

    If I understand you right - then we agree. The "hard determinism" of "genes willing our will" (problem B) or "God already willing our will" (problem A) blocks out free will. That is, in a sense, slavery.

    Problem A is very hard to reconcile on a materialistic view of the universe - which I showed in the article. However, both problems A and B can, I think, be settled on a theistic view of the universe.

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  11. @Anonymous

    Thanks for the reference! (the link doesn't seem to be working for me, though?)

    I haven't read much of Leibniz but will have to investigate this, because the question fascinates me. Are you unconvinced by Kreeft's and others positing that God doesn't "foresee" anything at all, because he transcends linear time as we understand it?

    I'm glad you agree on the materialism score - many (even some Christian theologians, believe it or not) hold that the human person is only material. Yet I think it's one of the most self-evident, axiomatic truths of life that the mind/soul/psyche is immaterial. If not - how much does a thought weigh?

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  12. Positing that there's a soul does not solve problem B. What is the soul composed of? How is it that the soul is free? Seems like you're just shifting the problem to some other realm in which some magic happens to make freedom possible. Does the soul have a soul? And that soul have a soul, etc?

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